New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

BOATWRIGHT v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2006-036-018, Claim No. 107672


Claim by inmate based on assault by another inmate in facility staircase is dismissed – State not an insurer and proof showed exercise of reasonable care.

Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant’s attorney:
Defendant’s attorney:
ELIOT SPITZER, ATTORNEY GENERALBy: Joseph Romani, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
October 23, 2006
New York

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Claimant, an inmate in the State correctional system, seeks damages arising from an assault by another inmate at Southport Correctional Facility on March 27, 2003. The incident occurred while claimant was traveling from the third floor of the facility, where he was housed, to the recreation area on ground level. Claimant testified that when he reached the staircase on the third floor, there was a sergeant and a correction officer in the doorway. He proceeded down the stairs and when he reached the landing on the second floor, he was confronted by another inmate, Mason Karriem. In claimant’s words, “he started to swing at me and I defended myself. A few minutes later, an officer came and broke up the fight. The officer grabbed me by the cuffs and punched me down.”

Claimant explained that Southport is an “SHU facility,” meaning all the inmates are confined to disciplinary housing. He stated no contact between inmates at the facility was allowed; even the recreation periods took place in individual “cages.” His claim of negligence was based on the contention that “there was no excuse for me and the other inmate to be in the staircase together with no supervision.” He alleged there was no officer in the staircase but there were cameras and mirrors so the officers could see what was happening and claimed that “if the officers were watching, Karriem would not have had the opportunity to wait in the staircase and assault me.”
Claimant’s Exhibit “1” was a collection of excerpts from Karriem’s disciplinary record, including assaulting an officer with a weapon at Sing Sing in 1998, stabbing another inmate at Southport with a pen in 1999 and assaulting an officer with a weapon at Southport in 2000. Claimant alleged that the officers at Southport should have been aware of Karriem’s “propensity to assault.”
On cross-examination, claimant went into more detail about the procedure for sending inmates to recreation. He stated there were two officers at the front of the gallery, at the top of the stairs, and there is supposed to be one officer at the bottom to direct the inmate to his recreation area. Before an inmate is let into the staircase on the third floor, the preceding inmate is supposed to be secure in his recreation cage.
With respect to injuries, claimant alleged he received “medical attention” on the date of the incident but no medical treatment. A few days later, he began to experience “extreme pain” in his back. He stated he was prescribed Naprosyn for his back at Southport and he continues with that prescription. The excerpts from claimant’s medical records submitted by defendant (Exhibit “B”) show that claimant’s first complaint of back pain was on April 8, 2003, when he told the nurse his back had been hurting for two weeks.
Claimant conceded, on cross-examination, that he, like Karriem, had a long disciplinary history (see Exhibit “A”).
Claimant called Correction Officer Davis Stevens as his witness. Stevens agreed with claimant that it was not “customary” for more than one inmate to be in the staircase at the same time, that only one inmate was supposed to be there. He confirmed there were mirrors set up for officers to view the staircase but indicated that although “most” of the landing was visible using the mirrors, there is a “blind area in the stairwell.” Stevens stated that he “usually” watched both the pat-frisk area and the stairwell, and conceded it was “very easy to be distracted and miss somebody.”
Stevens acknowledged he was aware of both Karriem’s history of violence as well as claimant’s history, which also involves numerous charges of violent conduct. He advised that “every inmate at Southport is a disciplinary problem of some sort.” Nevertheless, he was not aware of any prior problem between claimant and Karriem. He stated that the officers “try to keep a flow” of inmates going to recreation, but sometimes it gets “messed up.”
Summing up his case, claimant admitted that the officers responded promptly to the fight, but contended the incident “never should have happened.” He maintained that both he and Karriem, with extensive disciplinary histories, should have been “monitored closely” and should not have been in the staircase at the same time.
There is no question that claimant was correct in maintaining that he and Karriem should not have been in the staircase together. Nevertheless, although the State of New York has the duty to protect inmates in its custody against foreseeable risk of assault, it is not an insurer of inmate safety (Sebastiano v State of New York, 112 AD2d 562 [3d Dept 1985]). Rather, it has the duty to use reasonable care to protect against risks of which it was aware or should have been aware (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247 [2002]). Thus the issue before the court is not as was framed by claimant – whether the incident “should have happened” – but whether defendant’s employees fell short in their duty of reasonable care. In that regard, the fact that an officer was not present and in a position to prevent the assault is not dispositive (Colon v State of New York, 209 AD2d 842 [3d Dept 1994]; Padgett v State of New York, 163 AD2d 914 [4th Dept 1990] lv denied 76 NY2d 711).
Here, evaluation of the issue of reasonable care takes place within the context not merely of a correctional facility populated by convicted felons, but a special facility set aside to house inmates within the State system with disciplinary problems so severe as to warrant separation from the general inmate population. Claimant and Officer Stevens agreed that both claimant and Karriem had extensive disciplinary histories involving violent behavior, histories that are undoubtedly typical of the inmates who are assigned to Southport. Under such circumstances, the most mundane activities, such as simply moving inmates to the yard for their daily recreation periods, are always accompanied by the possibility of problems.
What was described at this trial was a reasonable mechanism for transporting inmates to the yard. They are placed into a staircase, handcuffed, after having been searched by officers at the top of the staircase, and another officer awaits them at the bottom. The movements are timed to attempt to avoid any encounters between inmates. Mirrors are in place so activity on the staircase can be observed. Unfortunately, there is an area on the staircase that cannot be seen using the mirrors. Given the vicissitudes of everyday life in this maximum-security special housing facility, it is not hard to imagine that sometimes things do not run perfectly and, as apparently happened here, one inmate was let into the staircase before the prior one had been moved all the way down and out into the yard. Since that there was no indication of any prior similar incidents in the stairwell, and the system described by Officer Stevens seems a reasonable accommodation to the extant situation – including the physical structure of the stairwell, with a blind area on the landing – to find State liability on these facts would necessarily go beyond imposing a duty of reasonable care and would be the equivalent of casting the State in the role of an insurer of inmate safety.
Claimant is correct in noting that this incident should not have happened. Nevertheless, defining the standard of care as one of reasonableness defined by foreseeability, taking into account all of the relevant circumstances, necessarily means there are some events that may result in consequences that should not occur but nevertheless do occur, despite the exercise of reasonable care. The court finds this was one of those incidents.
Accordingly, the Clerk of the Court is directed to enter judgment dismissing this claim.

October 23, 2006
New York, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1].Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from the court’s trial notes.